These notes are not really complete - but they'll do for now!
Economic growth occurs in four ways: 1) capital investment (Solovian growth, named for Robert Solow) and saving; 2) an increase in trade, (Smithian growth, Adam Smith); 3) scale and scope; and 4) Schumpeterian growth (Joseph Schumpeter) through technological change. Mokyr sets out to demonstrate that Schumpeterian growth is one of, but the most important factor in economic growth and that some societies are more technologically creative than others. Societies must have a cadre of resourceful and ingenious inventors able to challenge their environment; economic and social institutions that offer a good incentive structure; and diversity and tolerance in society. Status quo stabilizing forces that are too powerful to overcome stultify creativity. Malnourishment, superstitious, or extremely traditional societies don't provide a good environment for the technological free lunch. In short, Mokyr argues that societies must be able to sustain a long run of technological creativity in order to be successful. The free lunch is a "pot luck" with various parties (a diversity of sponsors) bringing dishes to the table.
Mokyr distinguishes between solitary invention and social innovation; and also between micro (minor adjustments to existing ideas) and macro inventions (new ideas). He believes that progress is possible (the same bundle of goods for a lower price is progress!) But progress is hardly inevitable; it is even possibly not the general tendency of society - so when it occurs, it is fragile.
He offers a narrative on the inventions from 500 BC to 1914 AD that changed living standards - it's a good short history (but leaving out civil engineering, architectural, medical and military matters) Progress in classical antiquity served public good in public works and infrastructure. Use of mechanical power, by contrast, was modest. The Middle Ages drew from Asian, Islamic and classical sources to develop wind- and water- mills, the wheeled plow and horse collar, the 3-field system and the caravel (ship with internal framework). Renaissance technology, argues Mokyr, was slowed by religious wars of the Reformation (he is not a believer in the idea that Protestantism is a source of innovation) but helped by the new rural putting-out system. Changes include mathematics, instrumentation, and the scientific method. To condense, 1750-1830 saw a period of incredible fertility around energy and transportation problems in the first Industrial Revolution, and 1830-1914 saw a second period of fertility around mass production, chemistry and communications. (These latter two chapters could take several more paragraphs!)
He offers an analysis of three societies, but first lists some of the factors that affect all societies: nutrition, life-expectancy, attitudes towards science and religion, risk tolerance, labor costs, weak governments (unable to stop change) and strong governments (able to foster and protect new industries), values and mentalities. Path dependence - the idea that technological change depends primarily on its own past; or, in other words, change is local and builds up around itself - is also a factor.
In the case of classical versus medieval society, classical society was animist, had no particular desire for mechanical energy, depended on hierarchical slavery, encouraged a gap between the educated and working classes, and established feudalism (which hindered the flow of people and ideas). Medieval society had monasteries which favored mechanical solutions to craft production problems, a less rigid feudal society, smaller fractured but competitive states, and the beginnings of a Christian/rational world view.
Why did China not beat the West to dominance? China's technology included coke and blast furnaces, mining, paper and cloth making, established internal trade routes, and external navy, porcelain, the horse collar and iron plow, moveable wooden "type" (xylography) and a strong central government. Europe had water mills, not much by way of weapons or trade or travel and petty fiefdoms. By 1700, the situation was almost reversed. Mokyr rejects a series of explanations for China's loss of technological leadership. He doesn't think Chinese culture was stultified or that the Chinese were unable to adapt nature to their purposes. Rather, he argues that there was too much and too broad of a bureaucracy, too much investment in the stability of a landowner literati; too much investment in the Confucian order, and not enough government support for innovation. It was difficult for a new idea to find backing.
During the first industrial revolution, England dominated because it had a skilled labor force, cheap coal, and unified market, some patent protection (which may or may not have been useful), enjoyed fewer wars, and had government support for new machinery. All of these slipped, relative to Germany and the US, after 1850.
There is a creativity life cycle: first, there are breakthroughs, then techno-social
systems are established, and then, as new inventions challenge the old, a political
defense is put in place. He coins "Cardwell's Law" - any given period
of technological creativity is likely to be short. The later middle ages and
the seventeenth century are the great ages of macro and micro inventions. He
sees the classical and Renaissance as periods of reactionary hardening and social
stasis. (297) Creativity feeds on itself, and also on exogenous factors like
isolation from war or abundance of coal. Punctuated equilibrium, borrowed from
evolutionary biology, is the model for technological growth.